The Real Reason Why Spencer Tracy Never Divorced His Wife for Katharine Hepburn

The frequent co-stars were in a secret relationship for over 25 years.

One of the most famous couples in Hollywood history played out their affair without fans knowing they were officially together. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy had a 27-year relationship, but the truth about their connection was not revealed until years later. This was, in part, because Spencer was still legally married to his wife, Louise Tracy.

As for why Spencer remained married to his wife despite moving on to a new, serious relationship, there were a few factors involved, from Spencer's religion to the way the Hollywood studio system functioned at the time. Read on to find out more.

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Spencer was married and had two children.

Spencer and Louise Tracy at the premiere of "Young Mr. Lincoln" in 1939
Bettmann / Getty Images

Spencer married Louise, an actor he met when they were performing in a theater company together, in 1923. They welcomed two children: a son, John Tracy, and a daughter, Susie Tracy. In the early 1930s, Spencer and Louise separated. Then, they reconciled and separated again. Eventually, they lived in separate homes while remaining legally married. During this time, Spencer reportedly had affairs with other women before getting together with Hepburn.

Spencer refused to divorce his wife.

Spencer and Louise Tracy at a premiere circa 1938
William Grimes/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Hepburn and Spencer met when they starred opposite one another in the 1942 movie Woman of the Year, and their relationship took off from there. But, they kept it a secret from the public. According to Biography, they did so for a few interconnected reasons.

Spencer was Catholic and did not consider divorcing Louise an option because of his religion. According to People, he would only have divorced if Louise, who was Episcopalian, requested it, which she never did. Also tied to his faith was the idea that he thought he was being punished for his sins when he found out his son was deaf. Director Joe Mankiewicz once said, according to the Daily Mail, "He didn't leave Louise. He left the scene of his guilt."

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Hepburn didn't mind the arrangement.

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in "Woman of the Year"
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Though people around them and those they worked with knew that the two were together, there was concern within the Hollywood studio system at the time about how negative gossip could impact their movies. Plus, Spencer, Tracy, and Louise all seemed to accept the situation, and Hepburn was not concerned with remarrying. (She married Ludlow Ogden Smith in 1928 when she was 21. They divorced in 1934.)

They stayed together until Spencer's death.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy on the set of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Spencer and Hepburn's relationship continued until Spencer's death in 1967. They co-starred in nine movies, including Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike, and their final film together, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Their relationship was considered an open secret in Hollywood. Gene Kelly once said (via People), "At lunchtime they'd just meet and sit on a bench on the lot. They'd hold hands and talk—and everybody left them alone in their little private world."

Hepburn didn't confirm the relationship until years later.

Katharine Hepburn at Planned Parenthood's 'Two Generations of Courage' tribute to Katharine Hepburn in 1988
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Hepburn, who passed in 2003, didn't speak publicly about her relationship with Spencer until after Louise's death in 1983. The Oscar-winner wrote about him in her 1991 book, Me: Stories of My Life. "I loved Spencer Tracy," she wrote. "He and his interests and his demands came first. He didn't like this or that, I changed this and that. They might be qualities which I personally valued, it did not matter. I changed them."

Hepburn was asked about this passage in an interview with Katie Couric, who said that it was surprising coming from someone known to be as independent as Hepburn.

"It was my pleasure," Hepburn responded. "He was a witty, amusing, entertaining man with a rather difficult nature. It was easy for me to please Spencer, because I loved him." She explained that she was attracted to "his sense of humor. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and a remarkable memory. And I mean, what attracted me to Spencer Tracy is… magic."

Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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